Sri Lanka

If there is a takeaway from the below piece, consider this.  Watch Mani Ratnam’s movie, Kannathil Muthamittal (She kissed my cheek).  Read Romesh Gunasekhara’s (spelling?) books.

Sri Lanka: fantasy island

There are some places that seem familiar even though you haven’t actually visited them. Paris is like that for Europeans and Sri Lanka is like that for me. Thanks to myth, movies, politics, geographical proximity, and a shared language, Sri Lanka was part of my mindset while growing up in Chennai in the 80s.

Lanka-puri was the golden land described in the Hindu epic, Ramayana, where the demon Ravana spirited away princess Sita. An army of monkeys built a stone bridge, waged a war, and rescued the princess. Some Hindus, my relatives amongst them, believe that the bridge still exists, submerged under the ocean. I can’t help looking for it from my winged chariot— Flight UL 122—but the water is as gray as a turtle’s back.

There was the Eelam depicted in the phenomenal 2002 Tamil movie, “Kannathil Muthamittal,” in which an Indian couple adopts a girl whose biological mother is a Tamil Tiger: a terrorist group. The family sets out to find the birth mother leading to a climactic scene where the mother chooses between her biological daughter and staying with her secessionist cause.

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A lush, tropical island shaped like a teardrop in the sea of time, this is a land of many musical names: Serendib, Taprobane, Ceylon, Eelam, and finally, the official Sri Lanka. Smaller than Tasmania, Sri Lanka is both fertile and prosperous. It’s per capita of $6531 is higher than neighboring India’s $4077. The flash of its gems, blue sapphire and moonstone are as well known as the flush of its teas. Also known are its internal conflicts. For 25 years since Black July 1983, Sri Lanka was caught in a civil war that took an estimated 100,000 lives. Since 2009, the country has been coming back to normalcy and tourism is on the verge of taking off.

Locals are optimistic. “Things have changed in the last five years,” says France-educated diplomat, Saroja Siresena. “While retaining old world values, we have modernized. Compared to Bangkok or Mumbai, our cities are liveable and cosmopolitan. Nobody stares at you if you dress differently.”

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I am taking two children– my daughter, 12 and nephew, 13—on a trip to a land that I ‘know’ but have never visited. This is their first visit too; one that is unclouded by history and known only through cricket players like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardane, both of whom are partners in the popular Ministry of Crab restaurant. Its celebrity chef, Dharshan Munidasa, plans to open Kaemasutra, serving contemporary Sri Lankan cuisine in July (Kaema means food in Sinhalese). “We all grew up with the war. We didn’t know a different life,” he says when we visit him. “Now that we have peace, I worry less about sending my child to school. I take more risks.”

The trick with travelling with kids is to keep moving. This we do after checking into the aptly named Taj Samudra (meaning sea in Sanskrit), scarfing down the complimentary chocolates and a pasta-lunch.

Colombo, everyone says, is a business city, known for shopping but not much else. The kids have lists from friends back home and are quite chuffed about shopping. I take them to the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple instead. I want them to engage with a clean slate– unpolluted by Sri Lanka’s politics and bloody history, but I am not sure how to engineer it. We hire a hotel car. Our driver, Hussein shows us layers of Sri Lanka’s colonial history: the Dutch hospital; Cargill’s, an English department store, now leased by an Indian bank; Portuguese outcrops and the mosque where he worships along the way. He accompanies us into the temple, pointing out the Buddha’s mudras or hand gestures that depict various moods. He explains the murals on the ceiling. I grin at the serendipity of having a Muslim explaining Buddhism to us Hindus. This, I think, is the magic of Sri Lanka. We stand before an ancient Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) and fold our hands. Finally, we go to the museum inside the temple: a kitschy assortment of watches, swords, combs, jewellery, and seemingly everything that the temple has received as a gift.

We visit a few other religious sites during our stay in Colombo: the Seema Malaka Buddhist temple, designed by acclaimed architect, Geoffrey Bawa; the Dutch-style St. Antony’s church; and the colorful Hindu temple across the street. The children like the Gangaramaya temple best, mostly because there is a lifelike elephant that they can hug, and a Buddha image painted in such a way that the eyes move to stare at you wherever you go. We spend a giddy ten minutes trying to escape Buddha’s eyes but to no avail. The golden Buddha’s eyes resolutely stare at us. We can run but we cannot hide.

Temples should always be alternated with chocolate. We go to Paradise Road café for coffee and a nut-filled chocolate cake. The well-proportioned space used to be Geoffrey Bawa’s office and is now where Colombo’s swish-set comes for sundowners or lunch. I eye the paintings by Sri Lankan artists along the walls; the children read Sumitha Publishers’ illustrated children’s books that retell Sinhalese myths in English. “The Great Flood and the Gourd,” is one title. Opposite is a store called Rithihi, which to my surprise, has a colourful selection of silk saris from all across India. We end the day with a swim at the hotel. Counterintuitive as it seems for a tropical country, Taj Samudra’s heated pool is heavenly and removes all the knots from my shoulders.

Breakfast is the usual sumptuous spread. I choose red string-hoppers with the famous trio of sambal powders: pol sambol which is mostly coconut, seeni sambol made of carmelized onions and katta sambol made of ground red chilies. I douse the fiery powders with a stew made of coconut milk. The children stick to pancakes and eggs. Where’s your sense of adventure, I chide. That was before my eyes start watering.

On day 2, we hire a tuk-tuk and go to Barefoot Gallery and Café (for me) where I buy a colorful cotton dresses; and A&M cupcakes across the street (for them); to Saskia Fernando Gallery (for me) and to Odel department store where they buy yellow sandals, muffins decorated with Spongebob icing; string necklaces and souvenirs. As the sun climbs, we duck into The National Museum and wander through 5th century Buddha images. The children protest at the sameness of the century-old statues, but are engaged by accounts of prehistoric Sri Lanka beginning with Balagoda Man. Wall plaques neatly describe how Prince Vijaya journeyed through the seas from North India in the 3rd century; married a local princess and founded Sri Lanka as it were. On the way back, we spot a procession of protesting monks, who want the freedom to pursue Buddhist education. So says Hussein, even though I don’t understand why ordained monks who have presumably had a Buddhist education would have that particular demand. Discontent, it seems, simmers under the island’s placid façade. Even though Buddhism is the majority religion, Sri Lankans are warriors by nature, says a veteran journalist who didn’t want to be named. “Look at their names. Simha means lion and Raja means kings.   This is a country with robust warrior-names.”

The next day goes by in a blur. I try to keep it action-packed and fast-paced. We ride tuk-tuks, chatting with the English-speaking locals. We go in and out of temples, “just for you,” as the kids say. We eat rice and curry like the locals. We try out the spare but charming local trains, less crowded than in India. We go to Pettah market and haggle for umbrellas. Soon it is time to go to Bentota, our next stop.

The best way to go from Colombo to Bentota and further down to Galle is by the train, which hugs the ocean all the way. Not having the foresight or knowledge to buy train tickets, we arrive at the Taj’s sister property, Vivanta by Taj by car.

The pleasures of Bentota are more rural. There are turtle hatcheries where Leatherback, Green, Loggerhead, Hawksbill, and Olive Ridley turtles are rescued and rehabilitated. Funded by donors, these hatcheries buy turtle eggs from fishermen, hatch them and release them back to sea, where they can mate and hopefully thrive. The children get to carry a 10 kg green turtle, which can live for 300 years, according to owner Amarasena Fernando of the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery. In the evening, we join a boisterous game of cricket in the hotel’s grounds, followed by a swim in the sea under the watchful gaze of a lifeguard.

On Day 4, we drive to Galle, stopping at a mask factory and a moonstone mine along the way. The wares may be real but the ethos reek of tourist traps. Our boat ride through the mangroves is better. It costs Rs. 5000 (Sri Lankan Rupees) for two hours on the water. We spot giant squirrels, three monitor lizards swimming after prey and spend half an hour at a fish farm dipping our feet into a tank and enjoying the nip of hundreds of fish. We hold a baby crocodile, sea snake, and tap some river crabs. We walk through cinnamon trees on an island, where an elderly man shows us how to smell and cut fragrant cinnamon bark. It is 2 PM when we reach Galle. I am eager to explore Galle Fort, but the children want none of it. A bribe of limp French Fries at Rampart View Guest House (our driver insists on taking us there perhaps because drivers get free lunch) buys me some time to buy locally crocheted lace on Galle’s streets. It would have been charming were it not for the blazing heat.

The best is saved for our last day. We visit Sri Sunshine Divers, owned by a strapping windsurfing champion, Thusal Gunawardhane, who lavishes praise on current President Mahinda Rajyapaksha (named after Emperor Ashoka’s son, Mahinda, who brought Buddhism from India to Sri Lanka). We scream through a banana boat ride; and take waterskiing lessons—much harder than I thought.

After lunching on Sri Lankan wild mango curry and red rice, we leave for the airport. The children discuss high points (waterskiing, turtles, snakes, fish, crocodile) and low points (temples, museums, more temples). “But what about the war that everyone keeps talking about?” asks my 12-year-old daughter. “It’s like this,” replies her cousin. “The Tamils wanted a separate state from the Sinhalese. They kept fighting for years and finally the Sinhalese defeated the Tamils.” Seeing my raised eyebrows, he adds, “I read it in my history book.”

That’s all it is to them young ones: history.

END

Fact Box:

Etihaad flies everyday from Abu Dhabi to Colombo. Fares range from AED 720 to 830 outbound. AED 745 upwards inbound.

Taj Samudra in Colombo overlooks the beach and has the best no-frills hotel pool on the island. The hotel organizes day-trips to Kandy and the Pinnawala elephant orphanage. Doubles from AED 640 including taxes. www.tajhotels.com

Vivanta by Taj Bentota is halfway between Galle and Colombo, making it a central access point to the Northern part of the island. Doubles from AED 890 including taxes. http://www.vivantabytaj.com/bentota-sri-lanka/overview.html

Madras to Mumbai

I was conflicted about writing this, because I don’t think people should define themselves so narrowly.  In terms of the “land they sprung from.”  But I cannot deny the fact that such an identity exists.  So I wrote it.  Tried to keep it light.

The psychology of a Matunga Tamil

I grew up in Bombay,” says Gayatri, one half of the Carnatic singing sister duo of Ranjani-Gayatri. “Actually, you should say that I grew up in Matunga, which in many ways is like growing up in an agraharam (an enclave beside a temple, usually occupied by Brahmin priests and their families).”

What is it about Matunga and Chembur that makes these areas a thriving home for south Indian culture?

The sisters grew up in a housing society that was surrounded by four temples. The fabled Sri Shanmukhananda hall was down the hall, figuratively speaking. During Margazhi—15 December-15 January—while the rest of Bombay (now Mumbai) drank bed-tea, Matunga’s citizens would congregate on the streets. Women with dripping wet hair would wait outside housing societies to watch bare-bodied men walking down the street, singing bhajans, clinking kartals (called kinnaram in the south), beating dholaks and tambourines in time to their shaking bellies. “We would circle these mamas (uncles), do namaskaram (prostrate before them) and go in for our morning coffee,” says Gayatri.

Matunga in the 1970s was entirely south Indian. The girls wore long skirts, called pavadai, their oiled, braided hair adorned with flowers. “When I came for college to Chennai, my classmates couldn’t believe that I grew up in Bombay,” says Gayatri. “I told them that Matunga was different.”

Matunga holds a special place in the imagination of south Indians, because it is the land where our relatives went to make their fortune. They left villages with long, syllable-laden names and returned as posh Bombayites. Suryanarayanan became Suri; Ananthapadmanabhan became Padi; Balasubramanian became Balan; and their daughters became Raji Suri, Priya Padi and Vidya Balan. These early south Indians who migrated to Bombay didn’t forget their roots. Rather, they fulfilled their love and longing for their ancestral homeland by duplicating its ecosystem in their new home.

At the Matunga market, women would bargain vigorously in Tamil. “Not just any Tamil but Palakkad Tamil,” says Gayatri. “Pumpkins were referred to as ellevan (white) or mathan (yellow) pushnikai, instead of the traditional way of calling them vellai or manjal pushnikai.”

Among Tamil-Brahmins, Palakkad Iyers form a unique subset. These were people who could trace their roots to the Palakkad pass between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Palakkad Iyers, or Pattars as they were called, migrated from Tamil Nadu to Kerala, and felt equally at home speaking Malayalam and Tamil. My father is one, and although he spent his career in Madras (now Chennai), he still multiplies in Malayalam. Palakkad Tamil liberally interspersed with Malayalam is pretty much unrecognizable to locals in Chennai.

Each of us has many layers; many personas. There is the global self that is at home in Cuba, Iceland or Japan. There is a world citizen who skiis in Zermatt, Switzerland, scuba-dives in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, shops in Rue St Honore, Paris, catches a Broadway show in New York, learns tango in Argentina, and drinks sauvignon blanc in New Zealand. Certainly, if you are a reader of this newspaper, you do all these things and more.

Then there is the local self that has to do with family, history, stories and myth. The local self is why we define ourselves as Syrian Christians, Surtis, Bohra Muslims, Parsis, Kamma Naidus, Kulin Kayasthas, Agarwals, Assamese Kalitas, Sindhis or, in my case, a Palakkad Iyer.

The local self has to do with religion and caste, but it goes much deeper than that. It has to do with a small patch of ground from which we have descended—be it Kathiawar, Kanpur, Khajuraho or Karwar. It is the reason we Indians use the word “antecedents” in a meaningful way. It is the reason we have very specific idiosyncrasies and unstated enmities. It is also the reason for our deep-seated superiority complex and insecure chip on the shoulder, for each of us believes that the patch of land we sprung from makes us superior and special in some obscure yet salient way. This is true whether you are a Rajput from Marwar, or a Goan from Colvale. You don’t care about the next province, leave alone the next state. Your insecurities and enmities have to do with your neighbours: people who call the same patch of land by that resonant word—home.

The patch of land that I sprang from plays out in my head in this way. Strip away the politeness; strip away the—sincere, genuine, authentic—belief in plurality, the abhorrence of “narrow domestic walls”; strip away the garden-party persona and pour a few dirty martinis. Then stream some Carnatic instrumental music, if possible violinist T.N. Krishnan’s rendition of Nidhi Sala in that “curly-hair” ragam, Kalyani, from your Dynaudio Xeo 6 speakers. Ask me then who I am and I will tell you, somewhat sheepishly, yet bolstered by the music, that I (like T.N. Krishnan) am a Palakkad Iyer. The music is key; also the martinis. Django Reinhardt or Manitas de Plata will not produce the same answer.

Underneath the “we are all one” persona, I am secretly proud of my roots. I was taught to be. Palakkad Iyers make good “cooks, crooks and civil servants”, said former chief election commissioner T.N. Seshan. To that, he could have added musicians because his clan dominates the arts. Actor Vidya Balan; singers Shankar Mahadevan, Usha Uthup, Bombay Sisters, Hariharan and Ranjani-Gayatri: Palakkad Iyers all. My mother “hails” from Tirunellai, a village near Noorani in the Palakkad district.

Palakkad Iyers believe (as do most ethnic groups in India) that we are better than our neighbours. Our women are beautiful and accomplished; our men are fair and charming. We take pride in our food, our character and culture. When Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, who is from the same village as my father, died recently, the entire clan mourned his demise. And yes, we drop names in select circles to prove our superiority. This is why India is united—not because we are tolerant, but because we haven’t been able to prove, definitively and without doubt, that As Palakkad Iyers, my family only cared we are better than our neighbours. about proving its superiority to Iyers from Thanjavur, or those pesky Iyengars. If you were a Bengali or Punjabi, we didn’t have a quarrel with you. We would accord you the courtesy of a guest, but you were as foreign as the man from the moon. Our petty hierarchies and feuding quarrels were limited to the neighbours who occupied our land.

One way in which Palakkad Iyers claimed superiority (to other Iyers, let it be said) was through music. The line of musicians who hailed from Palakkad is long. The other was a belief in the curative powers of coconut oil. A third was an affinity for border-dwellers like us.

People who lived in the areas bordering states were intellectually superior, I was told. This is why Dharwad produced exceptional musicians. Living on the border made you mentally nimble. It forced you to square away [off?] different, and sometimes opposing, constructs. It taught you how to settle into a new home but leave your stamp on it. It taught you to bring Madras to Matunga—actually Palakkad to Matunga, but Madras is a better alliteration.

 

Shoba Narayan’s Tamil when she hangs around her Palakkad cousins is an unrecognizable mishmash of Malayalam, Tamil and a few choice expletives. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Mumbai

Why does Mumbai inspire so much activism, writing, and imagination?

Urbs Primus in Indus: the enduring appeal of Mumbai, India

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Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station in Mumbai. Trains play an important part of daily social life in the Indian city, as do the battered black-and-yellow taxis. Frederic Soltan / Corbis
Primary cause in India’s most enduring city, Mumbai
Shoba Narayan

November 13, 2014 Updated: November 13, 2014 05:24 PM

The best way to enter Mumbai is through its battered black-and-yellow taxis. If you’re lucky, you’ll happen upon a chatty taxi driver who will apprise you of the goings-on in this most populous and wealthiest of Indian cities: the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement; the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan’s third child; the industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s son. India’s edgiest art galleries and theatres are here, as is the second surviving original copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy – under wraps in the Asiatic Library. Mumbai is a city of superlatives that well fits its “Maximum City” moniker, as coined by the author Suketu Mehta. The city has nurtured India’s best-known author, Salman Rushdie; its best orchestra conductor, Zubin Mehta; and the late, great lead singer of Queen – Freddie Mercury, aka Farrokh Balsara, a Parsee boy whose parents were from Mumbai.

I visit Mumbai often. It nearly always overwhelms me. The numbers are mind-boggling: 20 million people contributing 6 per cent of India’s GDP, 33 per cent of its income-tax collections, and 60 per cent of its customs-duty collections. Delhi may be India’s capital and seat of power, but the money that makes the Indian economy churn comes from this slim island that has spread its tentacles deep into the Arabian Sea.

In 1996, the city then known as Bombay divested its colonial but beloved name to revert to Mumbai. Locals use both interchangeably. I like the name Bombay, even though I believe that the name change was a necessary step in India’s emergence from the chrysalis of ­colonialism.

“Bombay is incredibly accommodating towards immigrants,” says Abhay Sardesai, the editor of Art India, as he walks me through the art galleries of Colaba. “It allows individuals to drop anchor and flourish on their own terms.”

“Half the Indians on the Forbes billionaires list live in Bombay,” says a dour cab driver named Shinde. I could have predicted what followed. “You’d think they’d want to do something about the garbage.”

Nearly every Mumbaikar I know has a love-hate relationship with the city. They complain about it constantly, but cannot bear to leave. Naresh Fernandes, the author of City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay, is no different. He loathes the housing societies of Malabar Hill that allow only vegetarian residents; bemoans the rising inequality, which he says is so unlike the city of “shared spaces” that he grew up in. But he cannot bear to give up on it. “I have a stake in this city,” he says. “Bombay used to represent a certain egalitarianism, you know. This was the place where you could come and make your fortune.”

From the time it was discovered by Koli fisherfolk who rowed on Arab dhow boats towards Heptanesia or the City of Seven Isles in 1138 and named it after their patron goddess Mumba Devi, Mumbai attracted prospectors, bounty hunters and traders with a nose for opportunity and a stomach for risk. Arab spice traders called one of the islands Al Omani, later corrupted into Old Woman’s Island by the British. The Zoroastrians, or Parsees, originally from Iran, escaped persecution by seeking its shores. When the Englishman Gerald Aungier became Bombay’s governor, he invited Goan Catholics, Bohra Muslims and the Marwari and Sindhi traders to come and grow his city. Mumbai is a city of immigrants – earlier, from foreign shores and, more recently, from other parts of north India. A plaque on the Gateway of India describes its status – both perceived and felt – perfectly: “Urbs Primus in Indus.” The primary city in India.

The city’s geography dictated its history. Its location at the western edge of India, its naturally deep harbour – Bom Bahia, or “beautiful harbour”, as the Portuguese called it – and its narrow width that forced people to live literally on top of each other, have influenced its destiny. The Chinese call this feng shui; the Indians call it vastu shastra. Mumbai’s vastu, its kismet if you will, has to do with maal – goods and their trading, previously textiles; today, pretty much anything money can buy.

There are numerous hotels for tourists to drop anchor into. The Four Seasons, located near the Worli Sea Link, has small rooms but superb service. The flagship hotel of the Taj group – the Taj Mahal Palace – was founded here near the Gateway of India, where the British entered and left India. It was bombed during the 2008 attacks on the city, killing the hotel’s general manager and numerous guests. Today, the renovated hotel welcomes guests once more, albeit after numerous security checks. The Oberoi group, too, has a couple of properties here in Nariman Point, the financial district. Boutique hotels such as Abode, Le Sutra and Bentley also thrive in the hip neighbourhoods of Bandra and Pali Hill.

“Even though the centre of gravity, at least in terms of ­real-estate prices, has moved north, towards Bandra and Khar, south Mumbai still remains vibrant,” says Arvind Sethi, a twice-returned local. South Mumbai is where the ­National Centre for the Performing Arts hosts visiting orchestras; where the Asia Society invites speakers; and where the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival and Literature Live ­occur.

The big change in Mumbai, however, is the flourishing of an “indie culture” in Bandra, Khar and beyond, according to Nayantara Kilachand, the founder of Mumbai Boss, a vibrant website dedicated to local news, views and events. “You’ll find cafes and salons often doubling up as viewing spaces, gigs taking place in offbeat venues and stores that are multipurpose – they’ll host a food market one day and a jazz performance the next,” she says.

Some things, however, remain unchanged. The crowded local trains; the entrepreneurial culture; the 5,000 dabbawallahs who deliver about 200,000 hot packed lunches – come mucky monsoon or stifling summer heat – from homes in the suburbs to office workers in the city. Studied by Harvard Business School, feted by Prince Charles who invited them to his second wedding, the dabbawallahs work perfectly in Mumbai, with its narrow, north-south topography, somewhat akin to Manhattan. Delhi, in comparison, is too spread out. “As long as people are hungry and enjoy their mothers’ cooking, we will be in business,” says one wizened dabbawallah named Telekar, who is eating his own lunch on a train after delivering 300 other meals.

“Ma ya biwi bol,” adds his friend with a knowing grin. Say “mother or wife’s cooking” – it’s more politically correct.

“Why aren’t people depressed in a city like Bombay?” muses the New York transplant Asha Ranganathan, who has instructed her driver to meet her at Churchgate station while she took the “Dadar Fast” (the city’s most popular and populous local train) into town one day. “This city is full of stress. But for Mumbaikars, train rides are like group therapy. We Indians don’t hesitate in saying what is wrong with our lives. We don’t say everything’s fine like the Americans when our lives suck. We ride the trains and share our woes.”

I think of this as I enter Chowpatty Beach with Vijaya Pastala, who sells monofloral honey to luxury hotels and boutiques through her company, Under the Mango Tree. A third generation Mumbaikar with a farm in Alibaug, Pastala meets me for a sunset drink at the pricey Dome lounge atop the ­InterContinental hotel. Then we drive to Chowpatty Beach, where families have gathered for “hawa-khana” (to eat the air). Egalitarian Mumbai is very much in evidence on the beach, as well as in the Wankhede Stadium, where I watch a cricket match with Anand Merchant, a dentist who tends to the rich and famous. One of Merchant’s clients has given him US$150 (Dh551) tickets. “I don’t know what to do,” says Merchant about his bounty of box seats. “I mean, should I stop charging him for teeth cleaning?”

I treat Merchant to dinner at the famous Indigo cafe as a thank you. I invite him to visit Bangalore, my hometown. He demurs. Don’t the bars close in Bangalore at 11.30pm or some such ridiculously early hour, he asked? I nod. “Your city is a morgue, yaar,” he says. “Here, I can party all night and go to Zaffran’s at 4am if I am hungry. What would I do in Bangalore?”

Mumbai too is grappling with many of the problems facing global cities today: astronomical affluence surrounded by abject poverty; a bigger divide among the classes; political tensions wrought by immigrants, between “us” and “them”. The famous Dharavi slum is in the throes of “redevelopment”, a defective strategy according to the urbanologist Matias Echanove. “Bombay should develop incrementally with infrastructure ­retrofitting – like Tokyo has for decades. The government should realise that Dharavi is the solution not the problem.”

Mumbai’s saving grace is its practicality. Its people are not given to hyperbole, unless they’re getting paid for it. A typical Mumbai greeting is “Bol” – literally “talk”. Why waste time with niceties? “Yaar” means friend, but is used universally. “Mamu” or uncle is used both in affection and scorn. In spite of all its contradictions – its ­Parsees-only housing colonies and vegetarian buildings – Mumbai is India’s most cosmopolitan city. It balances the illusion of Bollywood with the gritty realities of its slums; it’s India’s most aspirational city, whetting the appetite of countless workers who commute using the celebrated Mumbai trains. Its people are both irreverent and welcoming, embracing newcomers into the collective fold with gruff practicality. Mumbai contains, as Walt Whitman would say, “multitudes”. It is indeed, Urbs Primus in Indus.

weekend@thenational.ae

The flight Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Mumbai from Dh1,045 return, including taxes.

The hotel The J W Marriott Hotel Mumbai (www.marriott.com) at Juhu Beach offers double rooms from 12,117 Indian rupees (Dh724) per night, including taxes.

Barcelona

The thing with travel writing is that it takes a long time between travel and the actual publication of the article. Depending on the publication.

Barcelona for Eat Stay Love

STAY – 80-82 Barcelona 2

We picked Barcelona as a vacation destination for the same reason that many families do: great weather, design, architecture, the hub of the global food scene and a non-stop flight from India. Choosing the hotels was trickier. As a travel writer, I wanted to stay in some of the best hotels in the city. Being a vegetarian family, we needed to spend at least part of our stay in an apartment hotel with its own kitchen. And we wanted to be by the ocean for at least part of the time.

Hotel Arts, managed by the Ritz Carlton, fit the bill on all counts. We decided to stay in the apartments on the top floor because they came with a kitchen. We didn’t realize that the architecture and location would make for stunning rooms, or in our case apartment. Designed by the late great architect, David Graham for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; and in the shadow of the famous “peix” or fish sculpture that Frank Gehry built for the same occasion, the Hotel Arts had aged well and was full of architectural surprises. We got to know the staff even before we got there. My husband wanted tickets to the Copa Del Ray or King’s Cup between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. We peppered the staff with questions about where to buy tickets and would they hold our tickets if it were couriered to them. They did.

What makes a great hotel? Sure, a lot of it is hardware. Nobody wants to come into a lobby with drooping flower arrangements or dodgy showers. Even though luxury hotels don’t like to admit it, small mistakes happen even in the best hotels. What redeems every hotel’s flaws is the way the staff treat the guest. The woman who responded to our emails, Melanie Dorange, was one such. She researched Valencia; held our football tickets; arranged for a rental car; and answered all our insistent, sometimes inconsequential questions. When she learned that my daughter wanted to be a chef, she took us on a guided tour through the kitchens and introduced her to the pastry chef. It is these gestures that make for memory.

Our apartment was fantastic. Spread over two floors, and overlooking the blue sea, it included a spacious living room, study, dining room, kitchen, and two bedrooms upstairs. Light filled the space and created angles and lines in the shadows. We had access to the club floor for sparkling cava or champagne along with snacks and sandwiches throughout the day. Breakfast was in the lawns under Gehry’s fish, with European children doing cartwheels or jumping into the pool.

We were reluctant to leave the Hotel Arts but we wanted to try out a real Barcelona apartment, to see how the locals lived. The Urban Suites came highly recommended on Tripadvisor: two bedrooms, bathrooms, living, kitchen, dining, and best of all, a spacious balcony. We had dinner there surrounded by flickering candles and read books on the lounger under the Catalan sun. The Urban Suites was located near Montjuic hill, where the Olympics were held. It was a great location for shopping, hiking and taking in museums such as the Joan Miro Fondacion. We walked to the local grocery store, manned by Indians (surprise or no surprise); bought manchego cheese, crusty bread, tomatoes, olives, onions and herbs for a great sandwich lunch. We sat in the sun and drank the famed rioja wine and sparkling cava. Round the corner was Barcelona’s most happening nightclub and one night, we joined a long line of teenagers to watch local bands perform. For a family that wants independence without the fuss of staff; that wants to live like the locals at stylish digs; that wants to live in a vibrant neighborhood with great access to public transport, malls, museums and restaurants, The Urban Suites is a good choice.

The Mercer Barcelona is rated amongst the best in the world. The hotel is a revived and refurbished Roman fort in the old Gothic quarter. The red brick fort walls are still visible in the back of the hotel. Our room, a junior suite on the top floor overlooked a beautiful courtyard with orange trees. The scent of orange blossoms delighted our night. At the rooftop terrace, we could sip Bellinis and look over the turrets and cathedrals that dotted this beautiful city. Best of all, we could walk out of the grand swinging door of The Mercer and merge into the narrow lanes and cobblestone streets of the ancient Roman city that has recently spawned the likes of uberchef Ferran Adria and his cohorts who are still cooking up a Catalan storm in the city they cherish.

END

Diwali Food for BA

My editor from British Airways magazine emailed with this commission.

We’re after a piece on how different regions/cities in the country celebrate Diwali with food – this could be anything from street food in a big city like Delhi or Bombay to regions that might be influenced by other cultures (e.g French influence in Pondicherry).

The tone should speak very much to a local audience as opposed to someone, say, living in the UK.”

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What shocked me was how little I knew about foods in other regions.  Not the broad “Bengalis love fish” type thing but details.  Phone calls to friends/chefs, etc.  The result is here.

Pittsburgh

Some American cities are hidden jewels.  Pittsburgh is one.  

Steeling a march in Pittsburgh

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We’re walking through the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. My 12-year-old daughter, Malu, has discovered a dinosaur with cancer. It’s a bone, really, in a glass case, with a tumour that’s 150 million years old. “Wow,” I think. It certainly lends perspective to my anaemic arthritic complaints. What’s the cliché? The only certainties are death and ­taxes? And now, it seems, ­tumours.

The museum, named after Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish steel baron whose mark is left all over this city of 446 bridges, is among the reasons why Pittsburgh was recently named America’s most liveable city by a number of publications, including Forbes magazine and The Economist. The Andy Warhol Museum is another crowd-pleaser. To see Warhol’s paintings drenched in celebrities of the time (Marilyn, Jackie, Elvis) is to understand why he said: “In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This was prescient in an age before Twitter and Facebook. Warhol, like the authors Gertrude Stein and Rachel Carson, was born here.

My favourite visit is to the Mattress Factory, a museum of contemporary art with room-sized installations (or “environments”) created by artists in residence: Yayoi Kusama’s explosion of polka dots through one room – floor, ceiling and walls – is eye-popping. When we come out, the world seems tame by comparison.

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Autumn is a good time to visit Pittsburgh. The humid summer gives way to brisk, cool air that snowballs, quite literally, into winter. Banners welcome incoming students who populate its concentration of universities and teaching hospitals: Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), one of the country’s finest engineering schools; University of Pittsburgh, with its large research programme; Duquesne, with its famous Tamburitzans, the country’s longest-running multicultural folk dance company; women’s colleges Chatham and Carlow; and, unusually, the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. Pittsburgh is a college town, but one that’s not overwhelmed by them. Its roots go back to working-class America and manufacturing. For a long time, it was called Steel City. Indeed, when Carnegie decided to build a university, he designed long corridors that sloped downwards, to hedge his bets. If the university didn’t take off, he figured, he would convert the building into manufacturing plants with assembly lines. Today, CMU’s orientation includes a walk down long corridors reminiscent of the steel plants that once populated Pittsburgh.

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As an admirer of Carnegie, I’m ­eager to walk in his footsteps. ­Beginning as a telegrapher, he sold his Carnegie Steel company for US$480 million, the equivalent of about $14 billion (Dh51.42bn) in today’s dollars. He spent the last half of his life in philanthropy, ­endowing a slew of museums and institutions in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, the most famous of which is Carnegie Hall, New York. In Pittsburgh, his name adorns the museums of art, natural history and science. “Man does not live by bread alone,” said Carnegie famously. “My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth.” With these sentiments, Carnegie changed the course of his adopted city from one that was beholden to steel for its economy into one that has risen above it.

Geographically, Pittsburgh is located at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which meet to form the Ohio River. The tri-river convergence happens at Point State Park, marked by a fountain. Indians have long believed that the convergence of rivers happens in sacred places called “prayag” in Sanskrit. The Native Americans perhaps believed the same thing, for the Shawnee and other tribes were drawn to the area centuries ago. Today, a 144-year-old cable car takes visitors up the Monongahela Incline for a stunning view atop Mount Washington. The other cable car with a historic flavour is the Duquesne Incline. Most visitors go up one, walk around Mount Washington for the views, grab a bit to eat and come down the other ­incline.

The beauteous hilly landscape attracted immigrants – Polish, Jewish, German, Italian, African-American and Croatian – all of whom occupy distinct neighbourhoods in the city even today, giving Pittsburgh an attractive ethnic flavour. They came to work in the steel factories, manning assembly lines and manufacturing units.

When the steel industry went bust, Pittsburgh was forced to reinvent itself. It turned to technology, robotics, biomedical engineering and software – Google has a growing presence in the city – to grow.

Google’s office is round the corner from SpringHill Suites, a Marriott hotel where we’re staying. Guests have access to the fitness centre next door. Panera Bread, at the base of the building, provides quick sandwich lunches, and Coffee Tree Roasters, across the street, gives us a morning shot of espresso in an environment that is more distinctive than a Starbucks. Bakery Square, where the hotel is situated, is also where Social, one of Pittsburgh’s popular resto-bars, is located. At 5pm one evening, the place is packed with locals drinking and dining on homestyle chicken and meat dishes.

Pittsburgh has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of bars per capita in the United States. Its restaurants aren’t to be sniffed at either. Some are local legends. Primanti Brothers, a chain of sandwich shops, is a favourite among students for its low-key vibe and large portions. Pamela’s Diner, where Barack Obama enjoyed pancakes during a campaign stop, reminds us of an old-fashioned Jewish diner in New York. The recently reopened Fuel & Fuddle is famous for its hanger steaks, Buffalo wings and pizza. One evening, we enjoy ravioli and salads at Legume, a stylish restaurant with local art and friendly waiters in the Oakland neighbourhood. Over the course of four days, we try homemade ice cream at Dave & Andy’s; Sushi Fuku; Everyday Noodles; and the atmospheric Spice Island Tea House. Ethnic grocery stores – Indian, Mexican, Chinese – abound. Restaurants in Pittsburgh aren’t fancy and, indeed, locals use the word almost as an accusation. People value humility and discretion in this Pennsylvanian city on the brink of the Midwest. Molecular gastronomy, sculptural desserts, drinks as chemistry – all the things that can seem normal in a New York restaurant – are viewed as over the top and pretentious here.

Where Pittsburgh goes to de-stress is at Heinz Field, home of the Steelers, its National Football League team. The city also has the Pirates for Major League Baseball and the Penguins in the National Hockey League. Locals have fierce loyalties towards these teams and tickets for games have long waiting lists. The golf legend Arnold Palmer learnt his game on Pittsburgh’s courses and the three rivers foster a vibrant water community in clement weather, with rowing, kayaking and the annual Three Rivers Regatta.

Equally vibrant is the artistic community. Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama is among the best in the country (the actor Gabriel Macht, who plays Harvey Specter in the television series Suits, is an alumnus). During the annual Tony Awards for theatre, CMU ran an advert featuring all the illustrious screenwriters, actors and directors who walked the portals of its school. Perhaps because of this connection, hundreds of films, including The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, The Fault in Our Stars, Jack Reacher and the upcoming American Pastoral were fully or partially filmed in the city. On tour buses, it’s fun to spot the movie locations, all of which are enthusiastically pointed out by locals.

We assumed that the Phipps Conservatory would be just another botanical garden. What makes it exciting is the toy trains, which children are allowed to touch. Narrow aisles take us through a stunning array of plants, orchids and flowers. The cafe inside has a number of vegetarian options, while we spot academics talking to each other about esoteric subjects as they walk through the conservatory.

For those inclined, Pittsburgh has a number of cultural offerings, including a symphony, dozens of theatres and a thriving jazz and bluegrass music scene. The National Negro Opera Company, the country’s first, was founded in the city. The Benedum theatre, built in 1928, seats about 3,000 people and hosts movies, Broadway shows and music. Across the street is the Proper Brick Oven & Tap Room, serving amazing pizza and locally brewed drinks on tap.

Fancier still is the art deco Heinz Hall, dripping with chandeliers and red carpets. Here too, however, Pittsburgh doesn’t take itself too seriously. Along with the city’s symphony orchestra and George Gershwin’s music, Heinz Hall has hosted Bugs Bunny at the Symphony. Think animated Bugs Bunny goofiness with a live orchestra playing Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro or Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

On our last day in Pittsburgh, we do something that only a Hindu Indian family would do: we go to the Hindu temple to see Lord Balaji, who occupies India’s richest temple atop a hill in Tirupati. After eating tamarind rice at the Balaji temple, we board our flight for the long journey home.

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Aikido

Digital magazines are getting better and better.
Silverkris has a nice section called “Been There,” which talks about activities and locations. I am working on two pieces for this section. Here is the first one on a martial art that is close to my heart: Aikido.

You can read it in the gorgeous magazine here. Or clicking the link below.
They have me on the Contributors page here.

Been There Aikido